Structural engineer and architect in orange work vests and hard hats on construction site; software automation concept

3 Problems Software Automation Solves for Trade Contractors

Manual data entry, manual approvals, manual workflows — all manual processes slow down business operations.

Think about all of the non-productive work that employees in trade contracting businesses often do by hand: Daily reports, timesheet approvals, fielding change order requests. Automating those tasks frees everyone up to focus on productive work.

This goes for the construction trades and every other industry. In 2021, the team at Zapier surveyed workers across multiple sectors and found that the vast majority (94 percent) “perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks in their role.”

That’s not surprising. This is, though: The Zapier survey found that 88 percent of small businesses that automated rote tasks said this capability allowed them to compete with larger organizations for business.

That’s the real promise of software automation: It saves companies time, it saves companies money, it makes them more efficient, and it ultimately makes them more competitive.

Here’s how.

Software Automation Saves Time

The most obvious benefit teams see when they automate their internal workflows is time savings. Or, put another way, they get tasks done much more quickly.

Non-billable work like filing dailies and or tracking hours is often easy to digitize. It’s just a matter of having the right software. And that software should be able to automate aspects of that work, such as approving those digitized timesheets or pulling and analyzing the data in those daily reports. That data can then be synchronized with back-office tools to facilitate work like job costing and inventory management.

“Automation reduces busywork,” is how the team at Jotform puts it. “… Automation frees up employees to focus on doing real work so they can devote more attention to each project and actually make an impact in their jobs.”

Young worker in safety suit and yellow hard hat using a tablet in a shipyard; software automation concept

Software Automation Saves Money

Few industries illustrate the idea that time is money as clearly as construction.

When you can take administrative tasks off your field teams’ plates, you create more time for them to do billable work.

But automation has other bottom-line impacts for trade contractors. For example, automation helps mitigate the inaccuracies that result from manual workflows. “Managing a project means managing truckloads of data related to project tasks, resources, timelines, files, etc.,” project manager David Miller writes.

“… For handling such large amounts of data, workflow automation is the route to take. It significantly contributes to fewer mistakes both in terms of feeding the data and interpreting it. Thus, automate your workflows for high precision and reliability of data right from the start.”

Errors often mean rework. By reducing administrative errors, you reduce the opportunity for miscommunication or misunderstandings that lead to rework.

Job sites are seeing further applications of automation for this very reason. Rob Oberlander, VP of global professional services at Topcon Positioning Systems, writes in Construction Business Owner about companies exploring the use of automation control in their machines. By programming work with incredibly precise measurements, they’re able to boost productivity and avoid overwork or overuse of expensive materials or resources.

Software Automation Keeps Teams Working Together Smoothly

A common issue among construction teams centers on the expectations and communications between field teams and back office teams.

For an office-based project manager, for example, it might feel natural to manage the work of assigning tasks via email. That’s how things get done in most offices, after all.

But imagine that workflow from the perspective of a foreman on the job site. He’s leading a team that’s installing ductwork. They’re working for a large, regional GC who’s building a new hospital. His team showed up to work that day with a goal of installing 100 feet of ductwork.

At some point, however, the GC learned that the installation really required 150 feet of ductwork, and the GC sent a change order to the project manager. That change order became an 11:00 a.m. email from the project manager to the foreman revising the work from 100 feet of ductwork to 150 feet of ductwork.

Now, the foreman is frustrated by the timing and lack of clarity, and the project manager will likely end up frustrated when the new scope of work means a missed deadline.

A better way to handle that workflow would be to automate that communication. The GC’s change order would route to the project manager and the foreman, who would be working from the same dashboard with the same project data displayed in the same context.

That arrangement helps field and office teams collaborate more effectively whenever a change order comes through, whenever they need to process a claim from the GC or whenever an RFI comes through. Everyone starts work on the same page.

Still, that’s not how most construction companies are working, even today. In 2018, John Caulfield at Building Design + Construction reported on a survey that found change orders and work orders were still handled manually, “with more than 80% of managers reporting email as their primary means of communication, followed by meetings and calls via radio or cell phone.”

Five years later, our experience suggests that hasn’t changed very much. And that’s why field and office teams still experience unnecessary frustration when they need to get in alignment on what work needs to get done.

Young engineer in grey uniform with clipboard working at an indoor construction site; software automation concept

Learn More About Digitizing and Automating Workflows

When we talk about automation, there’s a key word that’s so far gone unmentioned: Empowerment.

Erich Litch, CEO of eSUB, talked about this in a 2021 episode of our Power to the Trades podcast. “You empower the field to be more productive with automation capabilities and tools that really enhance their lives, and you significantly enhance the value of the back office personnel on the managers and leaders, and the Foreman and people on the ground with the ability to better manage and control what’s going on,” Litch said.

For companies that rely on manual processes and aren’t sure how to take the first step toward digitization and automation, the key is to start slowly, says Kevin Neal, founder and CEO of P3iD Technologies: “Don’t get overcomplicated with your initial digitization projects. … Resist the urge to do too many different things all at once.”

Neal recommends starting by documenting the processes that involve manual intervention, then brainstorming what aspects of that work can be digitized.

To learn more, have a look at our four-step guide to moving construction project documentation from paper to the cloud. This will give your team a solid foundation for process automation. As your construction project data moves into its new centralized, cloud-based home, you will uncover new ways of working with that data through automation tools.

Step by step, you’ll create the efficiencies that save time, save money, improve collaboration and give trade contractors a competitive advantage in their fields.

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